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Nature & Nurture: A Talk With Lupina Creators James F. Wright & Li Buszka

Lupina is a recently released graphic novel about a young girl who’s adopted by a wolf and grows up in the wild after the loss of her human family. Lupina’s writer and artist duo are James F. Wright and Li Buszka. Based in Los Angeles, Wright is a queer Black writer known for the culinary crime comic Nutmeg in collaboration with Josh Eckert and Contact High which was nominated for an Eisner Award. Credits include work appearing in the comic anthologies Elements: Fire, Elements: Earth, FTL Y’all, and You Died. Li Buszka is a queer illustrator, comic artist, and courtroom sketch artist who calls Indianapolis home. Li has contributed work to anthologies Comics Book Slumber Party: Escape from Bitch Mountain and Mine!: A Comics Collaboration to Benefit Planned Parenthood. Lupina was originally self published before finding a home with Legendary Comics’ young adult graphic novel imprint.

Wright and Buszka kindly took time to talk about their work and inspiration and answer a few questions. We hope you enjoy reading!

Hello, James and Li! Thank you for taking time to chat about your graphic novel Lupina! How does it feel now that Lupina is out in the world?

Li: Exciting! I’m still pinching myself.

GL: What can you tell readers about Lupina and the story’s origin? How did you meet each other? Do you have any influences or creative people in comics or another art form or medium whose work you look to either for inspiration or enjoyment?

James: The origin point of Lupina was Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s classic manga series, Lone Wolf & Cub. I was reading it in bits and pieces and wondered, “What if the title was more literal?” Which led to me thinking about stories of children raised by animals, both fiction and nonfiction, and how Lupina could set itself apart from those. The main idea, though, was that rather than our protagonist, Lupa, coming of age within a community of animals (as Tarzan or Mowgli did), she has to rely on a sole animal protector.

Li and I met through a mutual friend, Josh Eckert, some years ago. I had originally discussed the idea for Lupina with him, and he suggested I talk with Li about it, as he knew they had a strong affinity for drawing both wolves and nature, two things that would make up the bulk of the series.

As for creative influences in comics, while I wouldn’t say they directly influence my work, I do feel more inspired to create when I see new work from people like Taiyo Matsumoto, Jillian Tamaki, Richie Pope, Hannah Vardit, Bianca Xunise, Tanna Tucker, Nicole Goux, James Stokoe, Diana Huh, Naomi Franquiz, Kiku Hughes, and Sara Alfageeh. I know that when I’m stuck or questioning what I’m even doing in this space, I look at their work (and many others) and am reminded of the boundless nature of comics and what can be accomplished in this medium. 

Li: I found James through mutual friends Jackie Crofts and Josh Eckert, who have collaborated with James on multiple comic projects. The early concept for Lupina was drafted by James and Josh in 2015. Josh recommended me for the project, as there would be a lot of wolves to draw. As for influences? I have too many to list here. Princess Mononoke is a big one. Avatar: The Last Airbender mixed with ancient Mesopotamian and Etruscan styles influenced a lot of character and location designs.

GL: A good amount of world building was put into creating the setting for Lupina…language, religion, science, politics, and culture which if not matriarchal isn’t 100% patriarchal. Could you talk a little about some of these elements? I notice tension between religious and scientific aspects through the filters of politics and culture. By any chance is that an allusion to our current social climate in America or am I reading too much into things?

James: We knew very early on that we wanted this to feel like a legend or a myth, and so set it in an ancient world where that supported that thinking. The geographic setting was intentional in a crucial way as well, because Lupa is raised in the coastal town of Kote, which is a nautical society of traders, sailors, and anglers. As she journeys from her homeland, she moves further inland, making locations like the woods and the mountains doubly treacherous due to her unfamiliarity with them. Language plays a part in her journey too, and I want to shout out Ariana Maher’s incredible work on the lettering here, as Lupa “speaks” in both her native tongue and in a more feral language as she spends more time in the wilderness and with her wolf protector, Coras.

And you’re right about the cultures feeling more matriarchal. The Empress Salkis, who sets the events of the story in motion, is part of a matrilineal line of succession. Talinasa, Lupa’s mother, is a magistrate in Kote, hinting at women holding considerable judicial power in this world. The celestial religion has matriarchal elements as well, between the sun goddess, Corasina, and the eight aspects of the moon goddess, Lupina, who preside over the lives of everyone from Kote to the capital city of Addalia. And the core relationship of the book, between Coras and Lupa, is very deliberately between (surrogate) mother and daughter.

I don’t want to suggest that you’re reading too much into tensions between religion and science here, but religion does loom over Lupina in ways large and small. The town in which we begin has a more balanced approach between the two: Kote houses a massive observatory, the better for its inhabitants to understand the heavens for its seafaring population, but those same people also celebrate a religious festival for the coming eclipse. As Lupa and Coras travel from home, those religious elements become more pronounced, as they (and we) gain a better comprehension of what their journey truly entails.

Li: I think James can answer this one better, but I’ll give it a shot. I wasn’t there when James and Josh came up with “girl raised by a wolf, also a moon goddess”. I could see how a moon goddess and sun goddess as major deities might influence a culture to lean heavily matriarchal. I personally noticed many of the political themes in Lupina do resemble some patterns which tend to recur through history.

GL: There’s also the contrast in settings between the human world where Lupa is first introduced and the natural world that looks vibrant and has a very tactile quality. Li, did you have as much fun drawing the nature scenes as it appears? In the afterword James mentions your having an affinity for drawing wolves and I have to agree with him. Could you talk about your interest in wolves and how did you go about crafting a bond and body language between Lupa and Coras?

Li: Yes, I did enjoy drawing the nature scenes! From a young age, my brain absorbed a lot of info about animals, both prehistoric and modern. My love for animals developed a fascination with their behavior. Growing up with dogs led to curiosity for wolves. When thinking of majors to pursue in college, it was a choice between art and biology. I was born a nerd for this stuff. When crafting body language and interactions, I try to mentally act out the expressions. Sometimes I’ll act it out physically, taking photos for reference. Gathering visual info and experiences, then applying them through instinct and intuition.

GL: How does family play into Lupa’s character, if at all?

James: Family definitely plays a role in Lupa’s character and her development. She is, as we come to learn, orphaned not once but twice, leading her to place all of her trust in her new “mother” Coras. But in addition to that, it was important that Lupa have enough of a family life, within a community, at four years old, that when it’s violently stripped away she has a very real sense of what has been lost, even at that age. (Unlike, say, Tarzan or Mowgli who were raised from infancy in the wild.) As for who initially leaves an infant Lupa at the home of Talinasa and Poro, and why, well, that’s a bit of a mystery for now… 

Li: I think it plays quite heavily into her character. The people she depends on most for support during a critical part of her development are taken from her – the next guardian she attaches to will play a major role in shaping her worldview and her identity.

GL: Lupa is the namesake of the moon goddess Lupina who also obviously figures prominently in this story. Then there’s Coras the wolf whose namesake is the sun goddess Corasina, who unless I’m mistaken, isn’t seen. Do you have plans to include aspects of Corasina or other deities in future installments?

James: We will definitely see Corasina, who has but one aspect, later in the series, and also will learn more about Lupina and their connection to Lupa’s journey. Lupina is the collective name for the eight aspects of the moon goddess, though some figure more prominently than others. And we will see much more of them in Book Two!

GL: Lupina has a very interesting use of color in its interiors, with certain colors corresponding to one of the eight aspects of the goddess Lupina. How did the idea originate? James and Li, were there elements that you anticipated in advance that changed when you approached them during your respective parts working on the story?

James: The way color progresses over the course of the book, with a new color introduced in each subsequent chapter, initially was a practical concern rather than an aesthetic or thematic one. When Li and I were self-publishing the first chapter some years back, we had talked about it being full color. But we wanted to have it ready in time for an upcoming convention, and decided to just do spots of red in the black-and-white book as a compromise. Later, when we met with Legendary Comics about publishing the series, Li suggested the idea of gradually adding a new color per chapter, like a slow-motion Wizard of Oz, which ended up working incredibly well.

I don’t know how much I changed from what I’d planned, but I did try as much as possible to write to Li’s interests as an artist. The nature of the story sees Lupa and Coras outside, in the wilderness or in the elements, for much of it, giving the two time to bond outside of cities and civilization. Knowing Li’s ability for illustrating wolves and the natural world, I did try to keep things there as much as made sense for the narrative.

Li: When James and I self published Phase 1, I originally wanted to use full color. We planned on debuting it at NYCC in 2016, which meant we needed to finish in time to allow for printing and shipping. I wound up suggesting a limited color palette, or grayscale with red as an accent color. When we teamed up with Nikita Kannekanti as editor, we proposed to keep the limited color palette theme, and add a color to the spectrum each phase. What started as a Plan B for finishing Phase One grew into a storytelling choice – as Lupa discovers more about herself and the world around her, new colors become visible.

GL: Keeping this color theory in mind, what would you say is the underlying theme(s)?

James: The color theory you mentioned does map to Lupa’s growing understanding of her place within this universe. In addition to that, I think the biggest theme of Lupina is that it is possible and sometimes necessary to change not so much who you are, but who the world thinks you are, thinks you should be. Pushing back against “destiny” and succeeding.

How was working on Lupina? Did you discover anything about either yourselves or your work process?

James: Working on Lupina has been a genuinely engaging and fruitful experience. Getting to tell this story as part of a team of fantastic artists–Li Buszka, Bex Glendining, Ariana Maher, Marty Clinch, Josh Eckert–and with our wonderful and wonderfully patient editor, Nikita Kannekanti, has been a real joy. This was easily the biggest creative team I’ve been a part of on a comic, and I had to tweak a few things in my writing style and process, which I think only made me a better writer in the end. I’m honestly just so proud to see this book out in the world now after all the hard work everyone put into it!

Li: James is a wonderful writer and friend to collaborate with. Early on we had a lot of late-night creative chats developing the story, characters, and a very important ham party platter scene. I’m ever grateful for his insights, experience, and wisdom in regards to creating comics, navigating the world of conventions and contracts, eating ramen, and puns.

Li: I learned that finishing a comic project requires that perfectionism be kept in check.

GL: Do you have any advice or tips for people either wanting to write or draw comics? 

James: The best advice I’ve got is some that was given to me, and that’s to start small. If you’re a writer and have friends who draw, pitch them a short comic idea, say 4-6 pages, something you both can complete in a reasonable amount of time. A lot of people who want to write comics come to the table with their 240-page original graphic novel, something that would take an artist years to draw (and a good chunk of change as well) assuming it even gets completed. Starting small, with shorter (and more affordable) things, allows you and the artist(s) to finish a few stories, which you can self-publish as zines and take to local shows, or put online for folks to read digitally. The key here is having finished work, that not only will make you stronger as a creator, it will give you a wider breadth of comics under your belt. Plus, it can be a good way to meet other creators, sharing your work with them and possibly collaborating in the future on other projects.

I’d also say, don’t be afraid to draw your own short comics either. It can be absolutely nerve-wracking as a writer, not only can it be a real learning process, but also it gives you insight into what the artist is going through, and will only make your scripts better as a result.

And if you do find an artist friend to work with on a short comic, please ask them what they like to draw, want to draw, and what they hate to draw. Remember that it’s a collaborative process and you don’t want to ask someone who doesn’t like drawing horses to illustrate the western script you’ve got.

Li: Be prepared to draw A Lot. I suggest keeping a sketchbook, for personal drawings, practice, and putting ideas onto paper. Study compositions and how they deliver a story. Most importantly, consider why some stories and themes stick with you, or why you love drawing some subjects more than others. The more you know yourself and your own values, the more genuine your art and stories can become.

GL: Now with this first installment of Lupina published, what comes next for the series and are you both working on other projects you’d like everyone to know about?

James: Lupina Book Two: Wane is due out in 2022, which will mark the conclusion of the series. We don’t currently have any plans to revisit it, but stranger things have happened (haha). In the meantime, it looks like one of my miniseries pitches at another publisher is going to happen [fingers crossed], and I’m working on a YA fantasy OGN pitch at the moment. I know that’s a bit cagey for now but I hope I can announce both officially before long!

Li: My plans after Lupina are currently open ended. I want to learn some new skills in relation to visual storytelling. I might revisit some old projects like paleo art or scientific illustration. I’m excited to explore future opportunities for working in comics and illustration.

Many thanks to Li and James for talking with Gay League! Best wishes to you both on Lupina II and future projects!

You can find Li at their site and Patreon.

James can be found at his site and Twitter and tumblr.

You can buy a copy of Lupina from the following merchants:

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December 17, 2021
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